Daniela Elser: Kate trumps Harry and Meghan in fight for popularity in the US


Written on the Statue of Liberty is a poem by Emma Lazarus including the famous lines: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Like centuries of European migrants who arrived in the New World to build a new life, 18 months ago Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, pitched up on US shores after exiling themselves from the UK.

Sure, they might not have been poor, but they were very clearly tired and quite obviously yearning to breathe free of the royal yoke.

Their arrival in California (via private jet, natch) seemed to hold with it the thrilling opening bars of their very own American Dream playing out. Landing in Los Angeles, they seemed buoyed by a tidal wave of promise: of deals, of attention and of critical acclaim for having the courage to walk away from the British royal family to strike out on their own.

As the first history-making, movie-inspiring, book-spawning senior HRHs to ever quit the gilded gig, they seemed poised on the precipice of a second act the likes of which the world had not seen before.

Well, that hasn’t quite panned out, has it?

Today, the picture for the couple is much less obviously rosy.

A poll published by the Telegraph this week has revealed the very surprising way Americans view the renegade duo, with the Queen, Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge all boasting higher approval ratings.

Instead of wholesale converting them to their cause, the couple occupy a much more ambiguous position in the American cultural landscape, it would seem.

YouGov found that 63 per cent of US respondents viewed Kate very or somewhat favourably, as opposed to Meghan, who only claimed 57 per cent on the same front. Meanwhile, Prince William notched up 66 per cent, surpassing Harry on 62 per cent.

Huh. Colour me shocked because, if you cast your mind back to those first months post-Megxit (yes, I know that feels like it was about three lifetimes ago) early signs pointed to a very clear trans-Atlantic split in opinion.

Brits were aggrieved that Harry and Meghan had seemed to blindside the Queen (a charge they have denied) and to have flounced off when they didn’t get exactly the new terms they fancied. Americans, meanwhile, were ready to welcome them with open arms and gluten-free muffin baskets, revelling in their chutzpah.

As a nation, the USA seemed hungry to claim Harry and Meghan as their very own doooooke and duchess.

Clearly not.

What is so striking about these YouGov numbers is that the Sussexes’ outspoken “move fast and break things” approach to their post-palace careers has not translated into sweeping support for the duo in the States.

That should be concerning, given popularity is the currency upon which highly lucrative commercial relationships are built.

Sure, in the last year they have inked highly publicised deals with Netflix, Spotify and Penguin Random House, and Harry has taken a job at Silicon Valley darling, mentoring and mental health company BetterUp as the chief impact officer (no, I have no idea what that actually means either).

But aside from the one-off 33-minute podcast the couple put out in December, they have yet to release or publicly unveil a single piece of work which confirms they are worth the eight or nine-figure sums being thrown around.

Harry and Meghan’s US identities have been built in opposition to their former royal selves. They are empathetic leaders who are relentlessly focused on compassion and running their “impact-driven non-profit”, the unspoken implication being that these were all qualities that were missing from the royal approach.

(“We believe that compassion is the defining cultural force of the 21st century,” they write on their Archewell Foundation website, which sounds like a line they borrowed from a Brene Brown Instagram quote.)

Finally, they can now be their authentic selves.

The problem is, their authentic selves aren’t the slam dunk many thought they would be.

So, will this have a flow-on effect for their ability to attract the chequebook sweet nothings of Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Wall Street? Even former official representatives of the Queen are susceptible to the winds of changing fortune.

The converse of this polling data is fascinating too: the brickbats and volley of accusations they have lobbed at the house of Windsor – of institutional racism, of cruelty and of not teaching Meghan how to curtsy – have not turned all 50 states wholesale against the monarchy.

The Queen still enjoys a very healthy 68 per cent in terms of respondents who view her “very or somewhat favourably”, which would be surprising at any point in time given the Americans fought a long and bloody war to unshackle themselves from King George III.

But for her to still attract more than two-thirds of people’s support six months on from Harry and Meghan spending two hours of prime time painting a picture of the royal family and the royal institution as essentially callous and unfeeling? Now that is a real turn up for the books.

Likewise William and Kate. Harry told Oprah his brother was “trapped” and that while, “We’ve been through hell together … we’re on different paths.”

Meghan, meanwhile, decided to use their interview, which was viewed by 50 million people globally, to tell the world that it was her sister-in-law who had made her cry ahead of their wedding, and not the other way around as had been widely reported back in late 2018.

(Somewhat illogically, Meghan also said she wasn’t revealing this “to be disparaging to anyone” and “would have never wanted that to come out about her even, even though it had happened”).

It would have seemed pretty safe to assume that the Cambridges were set for a precipitous decline in US popularity. Not so, and instead Kate has a six-point lead on the former Suits star and a one-point lead over her brother-in-law.

That the vanilla, middle-of-the-road couple are beating the Sussexes on their home turf must be a bitter pill to swallow.

These polling numbers come after the release, earlier this month, of their joint cover appearance for Time’s 100 most influential people issue, with the heavily (and shoddily) Photoshopped image being resoundingly mocked. Memes depicting them as a hairdresser and client or Los Angeles real estate agents abounded.

The world had a good giggle while Harry and Meghan continued to valiantly fight to wedge themselves into the global humanitarian elite. (You’re no one until you’re in the same WhatsApp chat group as Bono, George Soros and Melinda Gates).

On Saturday night, they will undertake their first “public” outing since setting themselves up as the Breakaway State of Sussex, appearing at the annual Global Citizen Live concert in New York.

The press release that went out to announce the news promised they would “continue their urgent work with world leaders in the pursuit of global vaccine equity to end the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Their “urgent work”? Sure, in May they co-chaired Global Citizen’s Vax Live: The Concert to Reunite The World event in Los Angeles, but they are hardly personally trekking through the Hindu Kush to deliver precious vaccines. Getting Jennifer Lopez on board to belt out Let’s Get Loud is hardly the same as finding practical solutions to the growing Covid nightmare in Djibouti

No specifics have been provided in regards to what “world leaders” they might have been hobnobbing with on this front.

Clearly, vaccine equity is one of the most pressing and critical issues of the day (at the current rate, it will take 57 years for low income countries to fully vaccinate their populations) but the rub here isn’t the Sussexes’ work in this area, but that there is so much PR haymaking around it all. Or to put it another way, it often all feels like sound and fury signifying nothing much but more glowing press releases.

So far this strategy, if those pesky polling numbers are any indication, does not seem to be swaying any new disciples to their side.

This weekend marks the beginning of a new chapter for the Sussexes and will mark the couple’s return to work after their parental leave following the birth of their daughter Lilibet Diana in June. This, along with the fact that the US is by and large open for business again, means the pressure is now on them to translate their rhetoric into real world action and tangible results.

As many generals could have told the couple, often the real battle is not to win the war, but to win the peace. And so far? The House of Windsor has them licked.

Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years of experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.

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